Merle Haggard released his latest CD, “Working in Tennessee,” in late October, but as summer arrives and he returns to touring, he’s trying to treat the album as if it is a brand new release.
“Well, I got sick right there in the highlight of the (initial) promotion of it,” he explained in a late March phone interview. “So we’re in the process of talking to the promotion people at Vanguard (Records), and we’re going to get back on the promotion of it, and bring it to life, get some airplay and whatever. I think the best thing that could happen is if we could connect it with a new movie some way.”
The illness Haggard mentions was fairly serious – pneumonia – and it sidelined him in January just as he was trying to establish some momentum for “Working in Tennessee.”
“I got it bad, and I had to spend 10 days on intravenous inside the hospital and all of that,” he said. “But I’m 100 percent clear. And I’ve gained my strength back. I had some bleeding ulcers. My hemoglobin got down on me. The count was bad. Hell, I was bleeding to death and didn’t even know it, I guess. But I got that taken care of, so I’m walking a little bit every day, a little more (at a time).”
For a moment in January, though, Haggard feared his illness was something worse – a return of the lung cancer that was diagnosed in 2008 and that he has seemingly beaten, having been given the all clear after treatment.
“They thought it was a recurrence when they first looked,” Haggard said. “The first 30 hours down there in the hospital in Georgia, I thought it was all over. They said it looks like the cancer has come back. Yeah, they said it was a 65 percent chance that the cancer has returned. And I said, ‘Well, OK.’
“They said ‘Now, it could be pneumonia.’ For about 30 hours until we got the report, it was tough. You really got a good chance to look at yourself.”
Haggard isn’t behaving like someone who is worried about his health these days. Having turned 75 on April 6, he is on a U.S. tour that has dates booked into October, including a May 30 stop in Billings.
And he has his eyes on booking the most extensive world tour he has done in years, despite the some very pragmatic factors that would dissuade many artists from such a venture.
“It’s a big undertaking, to say the least,” Haggard said. “With travel, the way it is nowadays, they treat you like a criminal instead of, in years past, you flew and it was an honor to fly for the way they treated you. But now it’s not that way. It’s a big hassle. And you don’t make as much money. It’s kind of like my manager says, ‘Why would you want to do that when you can make more money here?’ There’s never quite as much money somewhere else as there is here in the United States. It ain’t worth all the inconvenience. That’s the reason I haven’t done more of it.
“I believe it’s something in my future to do, and I might as well do it and I might as well do it right,” he said. “So we’re in the process of drawing up the ground rules and all of that.”
A world tour isn’t all that Haggard is planning. He also said his management is exploring the possibilities of making a feature-length movie and doing a reality television show.
“We really don’t have a working title, but it would be me and my life and my love story with Bonnie Owens and how we got started, coming out of prison and (having) fame,” Haggard said.
Haggard’s life has certainly been dramatic enough for the big screen.
He grew up in the Bakersfield suburb of Oildale, Calif., and his father died when he was 9. As he entered his teens, he began to run afoul of the law, getting arrested for truancy and petty larceny.
After being in and out of jail, he landed in San Quentin state prison in 1957 after trying to rob a Bakersfield tavern.
While serving a three-year sentence, Haggard got his life back together, as he earned a high school equivalency diploma and began to focus on writing and playing country music.
After being released from prison in 1960, he began playing bars and got a deal with Tally Records.
He notched his first top 10 hit with “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” in 1966, and soon Haggard was cranking out one hit after another, as songs like “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “If We Make It Through December” propelled him to the top ranks of country music and earned him a reputation as both a champion of the working man and an outspoken conservative-leaning artist (a reputation that wasn’t entirely accurate, considering that as Haggard said in this interview, he has always considered himself politically neutral and never aligned himself with either the Republican or Democratic party).
Haggard remained a top hit-maker through the 1970s before his fortunes waned in the early 1980s. His output of albums slowed in the 1990s, when he was on Curb Records. But after signing with the rock label, Anti Records, in 2000, Haggard began a prolific stretch of record making that has included eight studio albums, the latest of which is “Working in Tennessee.”
Along the way, Haggard married five times, having four children with his first wife, Leona Hobbs, and a 13-year second marriage to Owens, a country star in her own right who put her career second to raising Haggard’s children and touring with her husband as a backup singer. That marriage ended in 1978, and Haggard went on to marry and divorce twice more before he met his current wife, Theresa Ann Lane, in 1993.
As for the reality series, that would focus on Haggard’s current day-to-day life on the road and with Theresa and their two children, Jenessa and Ben.
“I’m a blessed man,” Haggard said. “I’ve the opportunity to live and watch some children grow up, and I didn’t start (this second family) until I was 53 years old. Here I am, and I’m healthy and everything and I’ve got this young family. My wife is over here saying, ‘What about my wife?’ So we’re doing real good, the family. If that part’s OK, then everything is all right, you know what I mean.”
For the moment, Haggard will be busy touring with the latest edition of his long-running band, the Strangers. A typical show includes a few tunes from “Working in Tennessee,” a solid album that stays true to Haggard’s rough-hewn country sound, as well as a selection of tunes from a back catalog that includes some 100 charting singles.
“We change it up every night,” Haggard said of the show. “We don’t use the same songs. So the band stays on their toes.
“We try to do things that are surprising and move in a direction that looks good, feels good and sounds good,” he said. “I just let the evening evolve. And sometimes it’s real good and sometimes it’s not so good, but it’s always interesting.”